It's not over the top to say that Orrin Keepnews was responsible for producing some of the most significant jazz albums of the 1950s and early 1960s.
His body of work as co-founder and producer of Riverside Records is substantial and speaks for itself: 14 stunning Thelonious Monk albums, two of Sonny Rollins' most robust dates, Bill Evans' most delicate albums (including the eternal Village Vanguard sessions) and classic recordings by Cannonball Adderley, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Dorham, John Benson Brooks (Alabama Concerto), Chet Baker, Blue Mitchell, Art Blakey, Johnny Griffin and so many others.
In this final installment of my five-part interview with Orrin, he reflects on The Sound of Sonny, the Bill Evans Vanguard sessions, his one career regret, and why the "trust factor" is so essential for producing any great record:
“The Sound of Sonny was the first Sonny Rollins album I produced at Riverside. The album was made in mid-1957, perhaps a year after Sonny came to the end of his Prestige contract. I have always considered it a great album, but I wouldn't know how to evaluate it in comparison with his Freedom Suite—a pianoless trio record with drummer Max Roach and bassist Oscar Pettiford. Freedom Suite was recorded almost a year after The Sound of Sonny and was much more ambitious and more difficult to record.
At that point in his career, Sonny was very much in demand and quite resolute about not signing with any one label. I had first met him in the fall of 1956, at the initial session for Monk's Brilliant Corners. Obviously, Thelonious was entirely responsible for Sonny being on that album, to which he contributed a great deal. So I was very pleased that this period of Rollins’ developing career included two albums as a leader for Riverside—and I'm also pleased that Sonny and I have done quite a number of projects together over the years.
Bill Evans had an extremely quiet start. His first album, New Jazz Conceptions, recorded in 1956, got glowing reviews but sold a total of only 800 copies in its first year. It actually took me two years to persuade Bill to record again, but by that time Miles Davis had discovered him and made him part of his classic sextet that included John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. After the second Evans album, which I daringly titled Everybody Digs Bill Evans, he quickly became another one of Riverside’s early key players.
Bill’s live recordings at the Village Vanguard in June 1961 turned out to be, serendipitously, one of the most celebrated 'live' dates ever recorded. We happened to catch Bill and the remarkable bassist, Scott LaFaro, on what turned out to be the last day they ever worked together, at the end of a three-week engagement. Scott died in a car crash only 11 days later.
The only deliberate factor on that date was having as much recorded material as we did. Sunday matinees were quite customary in those years, so recording those performances plus the regular evening sessions gave you a maximum amount of working time to choose from. Obviously, the importance of the timing was not anything that could have been anticipated. But in retrospect, it was a pretty perfect day in terms of what they were able to accomplish.
Bill was devastated by Scott's death. He didn't play in public for months. But we did start to work on the recorded material almost immediately. We quickly realized that there were two wonderful albums there. Eventually, all alternate takes were issued in one form or another. Bill wanted the first album, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, to place as much emphasis as possible on Scott. So both of the LaFaro originals we had recorded were on there—Gloria's Step and Jade Visions—as well as most of his solo work.
Probably my biggest career regret is that I never got to record John Coltrane as a leader. When his Prestige contract came to an end in 1959—not too long after his period with Thelonious—we were trying to work out a deal with him. But Nesuhi Ertegun at Atlantic Records made him an offer I couldn't match, and Trane signed with Atlantic. That's undoubtedly the most painful one that got away.
I can't really tell you what my technique is as a producer—or why I got the results I did out of jazz artists. I apparently had a good approach to getting creative results out of musicians. Most musicians I've worked with seem to have trusted me. There's no big secret that I know beyond that.
I have been a professional jazz record producer for more than 50 years. I don’t play an instrument. I’ve just practiced my profession based on my standards and intuitions. I don’t try to have a recording style or a special technique for dealing with musicians or for recording them, and frankly I tend to get angry when I'm asked that kind of question.
Every musician I've ever considered valuable enough to be in a studio making records with was a unique and creative individual. I try to relate as best I can to each artist, to perceive what's in him and what he wants to say. I feel that every musician is a different individual and every record is a different entity, not to be viewed as better or worse than another. (That's Orrin and Sonny Rollins, top, and with Cannonball Addereley, bottom.)
JazzWax video clips: Concord Records interviewed Orrin Keepnews on camera for its Keepnews Collection reissue series. You'll find Chapter 1 here on Thelonious Monk and Chapter 2 here on Sonny Rollins.